The Myth of America’s Christian Beginnings
Most conservative Americans believe that America was founded as “a Christian nation.” We also believe that our national motto, “In God We Trust”, was part of the Constitution (it was not), and that when Thomas Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence that “the Creator endowed us with certain unalienable rights” he meant the Hebrew God, Jehovah, or the Christian God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Jefferson meant neither. But since conservatives believe this, they naturally chafe when hearing our current President, Barack Obama, make plain the fact that America was not intended to be a nation only for Christians. They ask, “Don’t we sing, ‘God Bless America?’ When President Obama sings it, does he think God will bless us? If so, which God is he asking for a blessing?” President Barack Obama has stated that we Americans “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, or a Muslim nation, but rather, a nation of citizens who are, uh, bound by a set of values.”
John Eidsmoe, in the April, 2009 edition of the New Americannotes that:
Obama has made similar statements in the past. In June 2007, he told CBS, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” Note the progression. In 2007, he said we are no longer ‘just’ a Christian nation. Now, in 2009, he says we “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation” at all.
In making these statements, it is a legitimate issue to wonder exactly what President Obama’s point is. To the extent he is underscoring that America is proud of its religious freedom, tolerance for the intolerant, and our right to choose our religion—that religious freedom is as American as apple pie—even the most conservative of conservative Christians will likely say “Amen.” We celebrate the separation of Church and State. We do not want any one “Church” such as practiced by our mother country (and its “Church of England”); neither do we want our “supreme leader” to mandate our manner of worship, nor even that we should worship at all. It matters not whether our government is elected democratically. We do not wish religious choice to be taken from us. Such a combination of political and priestly power almost certainly guarantees tyranny. Moreover, personal religious freedom is one of the liberties Americans hold dear.
Of course, when an American citizen chooses to be Muslim, Hindu, or “none of the above”—it does not take much imagination to understand why in making that choice, believers in religions outside of the Judeo-Christian realm feel more comfortable with an America not dedicated (and never was so dedicated) to the proposition “we are a Christian nation.” Our nation is pluralist and inclusive. We want it that way, despite any zeal we may feel for our personal religious faith, and whether or not we regard our faith to be the exclusive pathway to truly know God.
The Pretext for Patriotism among Christians
Nevertheless, a plethora of organizations in the USA are committed to the proposition that the fundamentals of American democracy are established on Christian values. The notion that our republic was founded upon the secular reasoning of deists (and more worrying—pagans, no matter how enlightened) seems alien to say the least.
This common presupposition assuredly explains the avalanche of “America’s Shining Light for the Gentiles.” Even just the tip of the iceberg as to those who proclaim America’s Christian heritage is impressive: WallBuilders, American Christian History Institute, Christian Discoveries, The Claremont Institute, The Declaration Foundation, America’s Christian Heritage Week, National Alliance Against Christian Discrimination, Christian Legal Society, American Vision, National Lawyers Association, The Foundation for American Christian Education, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Peter Marshall Ministries, The Providence Forum, The Providence Foundation . . . in fact, over 100 organizations are listed on the WallBuilders web site alone, acclaiming America’s Founding Fathers to be rooted in biblical platitudes, if not theistic doctrine.
With that much smoke there has to be some fire . . . at least religious zeal that is, and indeed there is. However, and in spite of hope that the Founding Fathers held fast to “Christian assumptions”—the preponderance of their political philosophy hearkens not to the Bible but to Greece and Rome—i.e., the “Greco-Roman” worldview. Consider this fact: The Nation’s Capital is not laden with Christian symbols but with pagan ones. We should ask but we generally don’t, “What in the world is the goddess Minerva doing atop our nation’s capital dome (or for that matter) the god Mars guarding the entry to our sacred citadel?” We are so used to seeing them standing there it never occurred to us that we should ask who invited them to be our sacred symbols.
Were our Founding Fathers Christians?
No doubt many readers will be surprised to learn that most of the progenitors of America were NOT Christians; nor were they even theists. While they believed in a deistic God who created the universe and who stood for moral principles, they did not consider Him particularly “personal”—which is the quality a theist fervently believes God possesses.
Most historians define the “founding fathers” to mean a larger group, including not only the Signers and the Framers (of the U.S. Constitution) but also all those who, whether as politicians or jurists or statesmen or soldiers or diplomats or ordinary citizens, took part in winning American independence and creating the United States of America. The eminent American historian Richard B. Morris, in his 1973 book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries, identified the following seven figures as the key founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. [We will look at them in detail later.]
Warren G. Harding, then a Republican Senator from Ohio, coined the phrase Founding Fathers in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican National Convention. He used it several times thereafter, most prominently in his 1921 inaugural address as President of the United States.
We would hasten to include such agnostics (at least regarding the “immortality of the soul”) as the curmudgeon himself, Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense was but one of his contrarian publications to “Kingly and Priestly rule.” No one person fanned the flames of the American Revolution more than Thomas Paine, and there was none his equal among the Founding Fathers in deploring Christianity.
Paine greatly influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas. Despite not speaking French, he was elected to the French National Convention in 1792. The Girondists regarded him as an ally, so, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy. In December of 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of The Age of Reason (1793–94), his book advocating deism, promoting reason and freethinking, and arguing against institutionalized religion and Christian doctrines. He also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income [a first step toward socialism!].
Deism—which afflicted a number of our Founding Fathers—ultimately led to anti-Trinitarian propositions on the nature of the Divine. The origins of creation are simply a manifestation of one’s religious and philosophical belief systems whereby a supreme being, deigned to create the universe, can be determined by human reasoning and observation of the natural world alone. Hence, there is no need for faith, and particularly the Judeo-Christian type of faith—bits, parts and pieces may be used as a moral compass of sorts from these sources, but that is as far as one’s faith need venture!
For the Deist, the creation is on “auto-pilot”—God is hardly a participant in the affairs of man. But if He is, it’s a unilateral proposition—He does what He chooses to do in spite of any infractions on our part to the contrary. Why intervene through miracles and revelations? That is not the “natural order of things.” For Paine and his deist friends, all supernatural revelation (supposedly contained within sacred texts) results from times before the enlightenment when even the educated did not know any better. The “Great Architect of the Universe” (GAOTU) has an undisclosed set of rules to run the universe and we poor, puny misanthropes may seek to determine that plan, but it remains beyond us to ever know the mind of the Almighty, let alone “change His mind” through prayer and supplication. If we would worship God truly, we should realize we do this for our own benefit—nothing more than a mere reminder we are indeed but poor, puny misanthropes. God does not require our worship; and frankly, could care less about getting it.
So says the Deist with a smug look of self-satisfaction.
To go one step further to make our point a bit more plain: Unbelievers suppose that the “God who reveals Himself” in history, in His Word, and through Jesus Christ, is simply the figment of our superstitious undereducated imaginations—with the less intellectually endowed having more figments than most (Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and other “enlightened souls” apparently had a lot of figments). Most of those who embraced Deism wound up trumpeting the Age of Enlightenment. Most were nominal Christians who could not stomach a triune God, Jesus’ divinity, miracles or inspired biblical texts. Especially disconcerting was the notion of the God of revelation and authority—thus, “sacred canon” was but an illusion stemming from man’s efforts to control elements of society. These sophisticated deists were not atheists per se—but esteemed their own human reason, though finite, as the best that could be achieved given the limits of our construction. One and only one God was “out there somewhere, in some form” beyond our comprehension—and if one thinks about it long enough, it is only reasonable to conclude that God alone explains the universe. And that is all there is to it. Unitarianism and universalism (in its quasi-Christian expression) derive from Deism.
It might be put pithily as follows: “If I only had a brain . . . Wait, I do have a brain and I better start using it!” Thus was born the aphorism using our common sense, along with its big brother, the supremacy of reason, aka the Age of Enlightenment.
So it is that we contend the birth of these United States had far more to do with instituting the values promulgated by the Age of Enlightenment than to inculcate Judeo-Christian tenants through the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Hebrew God was not really the guarantor of the nation. For most of the Founding Fathers, he was purposefully occluded from its origination. Our grandiose cause was man-made, not the result of answered prayer. God was but a distant observer. If man knew what was best for him, he would follow the rules that God had made plain in “natural law,” but not venture that Deity communicated in a clear-cut way, such as special revelation. That would require God “speak” in such a way that violates the chasm between the Holy God and the less-than-holy human being. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8) While the Hebrew God was not inferring the chasm between God and man was unbridgeable (the Bible teaches that it remains God’s dream to live with humankind “face-to-face” thus restoring paradise lost), Gnosticism—an ancient cousin to Deism—was quick to conclude it was an expanse too wide to bridge.
Now this, in the course of human history, leads us to some interesting conclusions, the least of which disassociates humanity’s collaborate efforts with the divine plan (i.e., infinitesimal man—though he exercises reason, is nonetheless excluded from knowing the Divine plan—other than what he can reason to be its essential message and guidance). Again, our arrogant aspiration to discern the divine intent stands inconsistent with rightly knowing what God represents (and not truly “knowing Him”); and more importantly, realizing that we are to keep within the sphere of what God made us to be—knowing our limits that is—as we can discern them through reason.
Jefferson and “Nature’s God”
Nature’s God (if there is such a being) is the god of Deism. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, this “god” is the one embedded within the United States Constitution—not the God of revelation and authority, and certainly not the God of the Bible; for nature’s god has literally nothing to do with either Moses or Jesus, and certainly nothing to do with Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. These enlightened souls of sacred writ were at best only keen observers of Him Who dwells, from the vantage point as deists, in inaccessible ambiguity.
We dare say the “Founders” may have been, at best, impressed with the “moral authority” of the Bible’s overall message as they felt the Bible was a record of the best morality that humanity had devised in its millennia of wanderings and wonderings. They may have taken, again at best, the Bible’s so-called moral persuasions as general norms of governing civilization; however, the Christian religion was not responsible for emancipating humanity. That accolade was reserved for the enlightenment that gave birth to these United States. Viewing from their point in history at the end of the eighteenth century, the horrific history of Europe’s priestly and “divinely appointed” monarchical rule is testimony enough of what Christianity begets. Consequently, they regarded Judeo-Christian revelation an impediment to the creation of a mutually beneficial covenant amongst all humanity. Only human reason can lead to a righteous society.
To assert the biblical covenants were key components to the American experiment, as it was often called—be the covenants in question Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, or the New Covenant Jesus instituted—is rather a theistic reconstruction of secular history. This lack of a Christian consensus amongst the Founders is born out from a study published in 2003 by Frank Lambert which examined the religious affiliations and beliefs of the Founders. The 1787 delegates to the Constitutional Convention had various affiliations and some had none at all. Lambert provides this recap: Most were Protestants except for three Roman Catholics: C. Carroll, D. Carroll, and Fitzsimons. Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 were Church of England (Episcopalian post-Revolutionary War), eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutherans, two were Dutch Reformed, and two were Methodists, the total number being 49.
Some of the most prominent Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jeffersonand Benjamin Franklin were anti-clerical altogether—being vocal in their opposition to organized religion. Other notable founders, such as Patrick Henry, were strong proponents of the Christian faith. Several of the Founding Fathers considered themselves to be deists or held beliefs very similar to that of deists. Deism was “the least common denominator” among those who were “men of faith.”The phrase “Nature’s God” was inserted into our Constitution by Thomas Jefferson, a deist whose intention was to lay the foundation of a “civil religion” based upon toleration and respect for all religious faiths. “So Jefferson helped create a society in which different religions could coexist peacefully because of the emphasis on morality over specific belief.” Put another way:
The American Deists of the Republican period abhorred both atheism and religious fanaticism. The Age of Reason (Paine) was written to dispute atheism and the evil trends Paine saw in France and Europe. To summarize, traditional Deism emphasized reason over revelation and that God/Allah is non-controlling. Human rights are based on Natural Law but morality, to Jefferson, [was based] on God/Allah . . . Paine wrote: “Religion has two principal enemies, fanaticism and infidelity, or that which is called atheism. The first requires to be combated by reason and morality, the other by natural philosophy.”